Goins, Writer

On Writing, Ideas, and Making a Difference

A Simple Solution to Getting Your Writing Done

Despite having never written fiction before, I’m working on a novel. Since I don’t know what I’m doing, I keep asking my friend Tim for a shortcut. He keeps telling me there isn’t one.

I’m pretty sure he’s lying.

A Simple Solution to Getting Your Writing Done

A couple week ago, I started falling behind on my novel and began feeling sorry for myself. I beat myself up, blamed others, and watched a lot of Netflix (because procrastination is how I cope with stress). Suffice it to say, my plan didn’t work. Not writing apparently results in nothing being written.

Who knew?

So, I reached out to a friend for help…

Seek wise counsel

I called up my friend Joe, a writer of fiction and all things creative. He’s also the founder of a wonderful writing blog called The Write Practice.

Joe and I started our blogs around the same time. I focused on nonfiction and publishing self-help books, and he focused on growing as a storyteller. In the end, I wonder if how Joe spent his time was the wiser path.

At any rate, Joe’s a smart guy and one to listen to when it comes to the craft of fiction. I asked him how to finish my novel on time in order to win NaNoWriMo. I was tired of the “there is no secret” malarkey Tim was feeding me and hoping Joe would give me the inside scoop.

He did — but not in the way I expected.

Raise the stakes

“How do I finish my novel on time?” I asked. “Do I have to listen to a year’s worth of podcast episodes like Tim says? He’s lying about about that, isn’t he, Joe? About there being no secret… right?”

“Well,” he said, “I don’t know about that. But it’s possible for you to finish in a month.”

“How?” I asked.

“Consequences,” he said.

“Consequences?” I repeated.

“Consequences.”

Here’s what he meant:

When Joe was struggling to finish his memoir after working on it for two years, he had a jarring conversation with — guess who? — our mutual friend Tim Grahl. The same Tim who keeps telling me there are no shortcuts (he’s lying, right?).

Anyway, Joe was frustrated and decided to get serious about finishing his book. But he wasn’t sure how. So he called a friend, which is always a good idea. And Tim gave him some great advice. And guess what? In 10 weeks, Joe finished his book.

How did he do it? Not by forcing himself to get more disciplined. That never works. He did it by raising the stakes. This is an important lesson for all things creative. We don’t become more productive by willing ourselves to be something we’re not. We become more productive by making the consequences of avoiding our work more painful than doing it.

Joe gave himself three deadlines and three consequences, each with increasing severity, for each deadline if he failed. He used the “stick” approach instead of the “carrot,” and in the end, it worked.

Carry a big stick

These are the consequences Joe implemented:

  • If he missed the first deadline, he’d have to delete his favorite iPhone app (and Joe loves PokemonGo).
  • If he missed the second deadline, his wife would receive his beloved iWatch.
  • If he missed the third deadline, he’d have to write a $1000 check to the political candidate he hated.

Joe met his first two deadlines with relative ease. The last one, however, was a challenge. It’s one thing to hit a couple early deadlines and quite another to complete an entire book. He knew he needed to raise the stakes.

What was keeping Joe from missing his final deadline. What would prevent him for quitting at the most difficult moment of completing a project and just telling himself he’d do better next time? He had been here before and didn’t want to go back to this world of missing deadlines.

So, Joe wrote a check for $1000 to the political candidate he most despised and gave it to a friend in a sealed envelope, already stamped and addressed. If Joe didn’t meet his third deadline, this friend was instructed to send it immediately. No grace period, no explanation. Either, he finished the book, or he did not.

Now, that’s taking your writing seriously.

In the end, my friend finished his memoir. The manuscript is complete, and now he can edit it.

When Joe shared these incredible results, I was impressed. This was a book he had been working on for two years now, and in a matter of ten weeks he finished it. I realized that I needed consequences for my writing, too.

So I signed up for Joe’s community and set three consequences for myself: if I missed my first deadline, I had to stop drinking coffee. If I missed my second, I had to give up TV. And if I missed my third, I had to write a check to Joe for $1000 that he could use however he wanted.

I love coffee and am super addicted to the substance, so I wanted to avoid those withdrawal headaches as much as possible. I also can get into binge watching a show or two and tend to do this the more stressed I am (it’s how I cope, remember?). And of course, the last thing I want is to give Joe any money.

Not the most original of consequences, but they motivated me. I struggled hard to hit my deadlines but having something on the line helped. It’s hard to write a novel period, much less in a month. Setting a goal is not enough. You need accountability and consequences.

Get connected to a community

So, that’s my challenge to you. Don’t just rely on your own discipline to meet your deadlines. Give yourself consequences and find some accountability.

What would that look for you today? To not just set a goal — writing or otherwise — but to get in a community that is committed to helping you achieve those goals?

How could you set some consequences (positive or negative) for hitting or missing them?

Maybe what you need is not more motivation to do your work but a more painful consequence for not doing it. But don’t just beat yourself up — that never works. Get around people who will encourage you and celebrate your small wins.

One of the best things I ever did was start a free writing community called My 500 Words, which is a free challenge the offers a month of writing prompts to help writers being a daily writing habit. If you don’t have a community to encourage you, you are welcome to join ours (it’s free).

If you are a part of a group, then I encourage you to adopt Joe’s system and post a public goal, along with some consequences, so that others can hold you accountable. Check in regularly, and get feedback on the process as you go.

You can also check out Becoming Writer, a paid writing community Joe Bunting leads, and see if that’s a good fit for you as well. It worked wonders for me in finishing my novel. (By the way, I’ll share my full NaNoWriMo debrief soon, so stay tuned for that. Lots of lessons learned that I’ll be sharing soon.)

Do you procrastinate when you’re stressed? How do you get your writing done? Share in the comments.

About Jeff Goins

I write books and help writers get their work out into the world. I am the best-selling author of four books, including The Art of Work. Each week, I send out a newsletter with free tips on writing and creativity.

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  • Couldn’t help but laugh on the third consequence. Im glad Im reading this after the election! HA!
    But I think this may be something I need to implement. When you aren’t working for a publisher directly, it is easy to slack on self-discipline. Time to send myself to the principal’s office!

    Thanks, Jeff (and Joe)!

  • Melinda Todd

    This is an excellent idea. I don’t know why but positive rewards do not motivate me. Knowing if I don’t finish something because it will humiliate me (like not getting VBS decorations done in time for VBS) are HUGE motivators for me and I will work my arse off to get it done and get it done well! I really like this idea. A LOT. Thank you!

  • Alledria E Hurt

    I love this because we are constantly feed on a diet of you need positives in order to foster good work ethic when sometimes what you really need is a sword hanging over your neck.

  • Kent Sisco

    Great article. I used the, “I told my friends I’d post a chapter a day on my Facebook page. I’d look like a fool if I didn’t” consequence. And I wrote 50k in less than 30 days.

  • Michael Scanzello

    Nice post! Don’t know if I have the guts to try that approach. Maybe that is my challenge, to give it a go!
    Thanks!

  • I did something similar when I was dragging my heels about publishing my memoir. I’d written 9 drafts of it. Revised it countless times. But I needed to rewrite it one more time and was also terrified of clicking Publish due to the content of it. So I set up a pre-order on Amazon Kindle. That made me finish and have it ready before the deadline to upload the final files. This trick worked but I think only because I’d written that book 10 times by then, it was more fear than the material being ready.

  • Congrats on being a NaNo winner! Fiction can be quite terrorizing, so I’m glad you found your mojo. Go have a cup of java to celebrate!

    • EmFairley

      I agree, Marcy… LOTS of caffeine helped me get this year’s win… and even more are helping me plow ever onward to complete the draft (62K words and counting)

  • D. Holcomb

    Oh, yes. I procrastinate. I procrastinate on procrastinating.

    A deadline helps. Which is why I post a blog every Sunday, but can’t find the time to rewrite my novel.

    Knowing the steps to take helps, too. Rewrite? Ugh. How? I tend to write draft after draft (which I’m really good at) until I’ve drafted the life out of the piece.

    I’m going to try giving myself consequences.
    #1 No yummy oats and granola and fruit for breakfast. It’s raw kale instead.
    #2 No television
    #3 No reading novels

    I’m starting to panic already.

  • Katharine

    It’s not about writing fiction or nonfiction. It’s about writing story or not. You write story all the time, Jeff. A novel is just a collection of stories that intertwine.
    And there are people who DO have to do things the slow way, because people vary. I write the slow way, really slowly, like with paper and pencil, and could never just chunk out a formula piece. But some can. Jane Austen had to cut and paste with a knife and glue. It happens. It’s okay.
    Other people who could never do Nano are those who celebrate Thanksgiving.

    • wendygoerl

      Celebrating Thanksgiving may not be a choice. I hate holidays like Thanksgiving: the library’s closed, so not only can’t I attack my email/ get any on-line work done, but I’ll have to make up for the lost on-line time later, and family comes over (and expects me to be “social”), so I can’t do any OFF-line work, either! (Sitting in a too-small living room listening to my sisters plot out Black Friday shopping and enduring other boring conversations wears me out as much as physical work.)

      • Katharine

        Not what I meant by “Thanksgiving”!
        I had 25 beloved family members here for 4 days and 3 nights. Six were ages 4 and under. It was a long party. And I would never exchange it for having written a rough draft.

        • wendygoerl

          Our house, despite technically being a two-family, wouldn’t hold 25. Put ten people in the living room and somebody’s sitting on the floor. (And my youngest nephew got married in August, so it’s not like any of the bodies are little)

          • Katharine

            I’m sure there are people who spend a day on Thanksgiving, and I get that. But I’m the “grandmother’s house” we go over the river to get to. Bedding for 25. Food for 4 days for 25. Etc.
            I’m not saying everyone has to go full tilt as we do, but just that if I celebrate, that’s how it is for me.
            Even if I wrote all year, which some do, and just had to turn it in on Nov. 30, I’d probably not have time. Or strength enough just to click enter. Ha.
            Y’all have fun with writing ahead.
            And enjoy having elsewhere to go! I get that. When I was young, that’s what we did, and it’s all good. I made it sound like all the Nanos don’t celebrate, but I just forgot some people don’t have it at their house, or it lasts one day. I get that. Y’all, I’m sure, are FINE. However, there are some people who cannot do Nano, because of Thanksgiving, which is what I intended. My bad. As a writer, I certainly could’ve written that better!
            And I’m STILL laundering bedding, toweling, floor mats… 😀

    • EmFairley

      Katherine, I not only celebrated Thanksgiving, but I won NaNo on the Tuesday beforehand. How? By starting a couple days early. In 24 days I wrote just over 50,500 words. It’s doable if you’re willing to put the hours in. As it is, despite the win, my first draft won’t be ready in time for Christmas, because 50K words is so little in novel writing terms, and mine will be nearer, if not exceed 100K

  • Katharine

    Oh.
    I reward myself with forbidden fruit: ice cream. One sundae for every rejection slip. Works. Because it’s not really written until it’s mailed.

    • wendygoerl

      Must be frustrating when publishers don’t bother to reply.

      • Katharine

        Ha! I’ve had a few of those and yeah–frustrating!

  • Christine

    Dealing with health issues for most of this year, I’ve been dragging my feet about “getting back at it.” I’ll have to think more about Joe’s idea of suitable consequences for wimping out.

    But I definitely agree that having a community or group, face-to-face or online, does wonders. When I started editing my story I sent the first four chapters to a friend, but then I started to think, “This tale is totally blah, you know.” Within a day my friend wrote back, “Now i want to know the rest of it!” My courage went from one to nine with one e-mail.

    Thanks for giving us the link to your group. Knowing I need something, I went online recently to search for writing groups. There are many listed, but most are open to all genres and I avoid psych thrillers, horror, sci-fi, fantasy or erotic stuff. I’d like a free, maybe weekly, exchange of WIPs with a handful of writers who do the tamer stuff. I need that motivation of submitting something to someone.

  • Organization methods that work with (or around) limitations rather than against them helps a lot.

    Ever heard of stickK? You set a goal and an accountability partner/method. You can even charge yourself money. I don’t use it much, but it can be useful.

  • arunabh

    What is nanowrimo

    • The Write Group

      NaNoWriMo is short for National Novel Writing Month. You join the challenge, held every November, and write the first draft of an original 50 000+ word novel. Each day you post how many words you wrote and receive stats on your progress. You also get community encouragement.

      https://nanowrimo.org/

  • Erin Lodes

    As I’m planning for 2017, I found this extremely useful! Thanks Jeff!

  • Sefton

    I find there’s a fine line between motivational consequences and paralysing pressure. I think rewards (such as the selfesteem boost from publishing the thing you’ve been working on for months) work better for me than negative consequences. I find worry about consequences stressful in a bad way.

    But then I’ve done nano several times with only the threat of failure to drive me on, and that’s worked great for me. We’re all different!

  • EmFairley

    Congratulations fellow winner! NaNo might be over, but my guess is that my own story will easily reach 100K before it’s finished. I’m not writing at weekends now, so it will take a bit longer to complete, but I am sticking to the minimum 1,667 daily word count. Indeed I’m averaging around 2,100.

    Good luck going forward with your story

  • I have a built in natural consequence at the moment. I won’t discuss the details, but that keeps me going. I’m not writing a novel, but I do have a blog. I know that if I don’t give this my all, I’ll need to divide my time between writing and something else. If I end up needing to do that, it’s OK. But I might not have the opportunity to go full tilt like this again for a while. Also, I’ve become passionate about the environment. I find myself constantly writing blog posts in my head. But I empathize with those of you writing longer works. I wrote a 5000 word post on book buying. That took a lot of discipline. Novel? My hats off to you!

  • Ashley Nance

    Jeff, I’ve been following you for year, and today you totally rocked my world. And it was so well timed for me… Thank you!!

  • wendygoerl

    It’s hard to keep a deadline when–sure as you set one–something comes along that unexpectedly diverts several hours of time that you had planned for writing. It’s gotten to the point where I’m afraid to think more than 24 hours in advance–and that’s no guarantee.

  • Mr. Goins, thank you so much for sharing the above article. Everything you state resonates with me. I started writing my novel on November 15th. For six days straight I was composing a chapter a day comprised of 3,000+ words each. I was on a roll. I thought nothing could stop me from completing at least 43,000+ words in less than a month. Then day seven came along. I only managed 182 words for ch 7. The words didn’t come easily. It was a struggle to get those 182 words on day 7. It was a painful process. After completing the 182 nd word, my mind went blank. I was deeply depressed and disappointed in myself. To me those 182 words I wrote on day 7 were poor quality. I’ve been struggling to progress with the novel ever since. I haven’t written a word of the novel since then. Self doubt clouded my mind. Frustration and exhaustion set in. However, I’m going to give it another go by applying the techniques you speak of. It’s because of you and you inspiring article, I have the courage to continue with my novel to bring it to completion. Thank you for sharing your experiences with writing a novel along with your tribulations. I now realize I’m not along in my struggles when it comes to composing a novel and bringing it to completion.

  • Gabi

    Hmm. I don’t drink coffee, but I also have the stress related addiction to TV. It’s horrible isn’t it. It’s an escape. I sometimes take away books from myself. I think I would have to take away chocolate or something else that is food, I took coffee away many years ago for health reasons. TV would probably work for me. I will have to test this and see if it helps me.. Usually if I’m in true procrastination mode, I just start cleaning and organizing, or making lists, then I feel busy without actually getting things done. Maybe I could say I am not allowed to clean my house until stuff gets done. Hmmmm.

  • Mike Morisseau

    My goal is to finish my 1st draft for my movie script by January 1st. And my consequence if I don’t do so is no TV until its completed. I’ve set and missed alot of goals in the pass so I think this way of approaching will produce better results. Thanks Jeff!

    P.S I’m also taking your Intentional Blog Course and I love the homework you give after each lesson. Looking forward to incorporating your tips and relaunching my blog in January!

  • This is something I can definitely relate to, the only real secret to finishing your first draft is discipline and writing even when you don’t feel like it. Quite often you can get into the habit of becoming a slave to your feelings. 🙂

  • Wow! Those tips are everything for me! I wrote 3 deadlines and going to join community today for sure. It is time to stop being procrastinated. Also found this deadline system. Hope these methods will help like in your case.

  • Charles S Areson

    Mr. Goins ,
    I wanted to thank you for your $1000 contribution to our goal. I think.

    Just kidding, good stuff.

  • Denise

    A handful of practical advice sprinkled with self-deprecation. I like that. Cheers to your writing and deadlines. I knew I wanted to be a writer the summer I rode my three speed to the corner neighborhood store (a two mile ride) when I was nine to purchase a pack of loose leaf paper so that I could write my novel. Still writing but not a novel…yet. Thanks Jeff for the inspiration.